Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Kitchen Analogy and the 3-4 Defense

I've long used "The Kitchen Analogy" when discussing how coaching and talent interrelate. While I know it isn't perfect, it seems to get the point across on how they get along.

Since I don't believe I've ever published the Analogy here, I'll try and sum it up.

In the kitchen, there are several things that make the meal. The meat and all of the ingredients that the kitchen has at its disposal are the talent the team has to work with.

The cook is the person who has to put all of those ingredients together and make a palatable meal out of them, so he equates to being the coaching that the team has.

At its most basic level, a team that is loaded with prime talent is like having a well-stocked kitchen. An excellent cook should be able to take such ingredients and work wonders with them. In other words, an excellent coach matched with excellent talent should be the makings of a dynasty.

But we know that this isn't usually how it works. Often times, a good coach isn't blessed with Angus beef to work with, but Wal-Mart brand ground chuck. The impact of a great coach on a team with little talent is like trying to make your poor ingredients look and taste palatable. And, a good coach can maximize that talent, maybe not make it into a Super Bowl team, but certainly make it work.

A good example of this was the impact Mike McCarthy had on his offensive line his first season, when he was given a bunch of rookies to try and bolster the interior. Even though the talent was still raw and green, he was able to work around it and make it "palatable"...certainly not great, but something that enabled the offense to function.

The other way this can play out is when you have excellent ingredients and a poor cook. You would think that if all the pieces are in place and of the finest quality, you just want your cook to go in there and not mess it up. The same holds true for teams that have the right talent in place and ready to go...while you would love to have a "great coach" to get that team totally ready to dominate, what you don't want it a coach that will somehow mess it up.

I like to liken this situation to Barry Switzer and the Dallas Cowboys. The dynasty team was pretty much in place when Jimmy Johnson left. All Switzer had to do is not mess it up. I'll let you be the judge of whether or not he was successful, but it was clear Switzer was not half the coach Johnson was.

Now, a couple of writers lately have bashed the Packers' decision to transition to a 3-4 scheme, most recently Kevin Seifert of ESPN, who needs to write about something in the lean months between the draft and training camp.

He states:

But the Green Bay switch really gets under my skin. Two years ago, the Packers had an upper-tier defense while running the 4-3. The strength of that team was a very deep, talented and versatile defensive line. The Packers rotated big men in, stayed fresh up front and put an awful lot of pressure on opposing offenses for four quarters. Last year, the defensive front was hit hard by injuries, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila was released and Corey Williams was dealt to the Browns before the season. Why not just bring in one or two more 4-3 linemen and stick with what worked?

It should be noted that Dom Capers will be the one coordinating the change. Capers knows what will make the transformation more palatable.

I still contend that the Packers would have been better off sticking with the 4-3 and still drafting Raji. Without making the change, Green Bay would not have had to uncharacteristically jump back into the first round to fill a position of need, and could have used the resources that it took to get Matthews to add to other areas of the team, such as offensive tackle or another 4-3 defensive end. Expect some growing pains on defense.

Now, mind you, I haven't exactly been glorifying the decision to transition to the 3-4 myself. I think that it might be a trendy move that is relying on the scheme to save the defense instead of the talent. And we know how the scheme change saved the offensive line [sarcasm off].

And I agree that this year may be fraught with more growing pains than we anticipate. But Seifert hits on the most salient point (even using the word "palatable") in that the coaching is of critical importance. Dom Capers has the mantle of responsibility of making whatever talent we presently have work to the best of his ability.

And, as we look at our talent (particularly in the front seven), there's a point to be made that our ingredients aren't all prime rib. The talent ranges from the unripe (Raji, Matthews) to the underperforming (Harrell, Hawk, Poppinga) to the damaged (Jenkins, Barnett), to the out-of-place (Kampman). Not to say our talent is poor, but the numbers and the ouster of last year's defensive coordinator shows that the talent did not perform in spite of the coaching, either.

So, what can a coordinator like Dom Capers do better than Bob Sanders? As the cook in the kitchen, it is his responsibility to insure all the talent is utilized correctly. He knows it isn't wise to substitute chicken gunk for chicken salad, as Larry Beightol famously said. You have to work with what you have and make it come together somehow.

And that's where the third part of the Kitchen Analogy comes into play: the scheme is like the recipe that the cook reads from. On the recipe is a list of the ingredients that you need to make your meal, and a list of instructions on how to put it all together. The 3-4 scheme also provides this blueprint, the list of ingredients and instructions. How many times have we seen lists of measurables for prototypical 3-4 nose tackles or the ideal 3-4 outside linebacker? It lists the kind of talent that this particular "recipe" needs.

The one thing that has given me a bit of hope for this scheme change is the declaration by Capers and McCarthy that this is going to be a slow transition, utilizing hybrid strategies into the defense instead of going strictly by the 3-4 script, regardless of whether or not you have the right ingredients or not on the recipe.

The "hybrid" 3-4/4-3 defense is the one getting most of the press lately as being the next innovative defensive scheme, and for good reason. A ton of teams are converting to the 3-4: no fewer than 12 teams will be using the 3-4 at least part of the time next season. Being able to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to how offenses will be countering your defense is pretty smart: more offenses are going to face 3-4's and develop more strategies to counter them.

You don't believe me? The 3-4 is utterly unstoppable? Please. Why in the world did most NFL teams abandon it in the 1980's if it was completely bulletproof? The reason it is becoming so successful is because offenses haven't faced it in years, and are just now relearning the strategies to counter them. It's all cyclical. In ten years, most teams will be changing again to a 4-3.

Which is what makes the hybrid defense the smartest move for our cook, Dom Capers. As he looks at our recipe for the 3-4, he is going to see that we are missing some of the ingredients. A bad cook plows on, putting square pegs in round holes, determined that the scheme will save us all, even if we don't have the right ingredients needed. We'll substitute paprika for that salt we don't have, or we'll just skip the corn starch altogether.

If you rely on the scheme to win it all for you, you will end up with a huge mess coming out of the oven.

That's why Dom Capers may be our biggest free agent signing of the offseason: it is going to be his job to make the right substitutions and modifications to the scheme that will make it most successful. Aaron Kampman may work out at OLB, and he may not. It is going to be up to Capers to put him in the spot where he will be the most effective, and if that means having him put a hand down several times a game, then that's what needs to happen.

Where does Hawk fit? Is Raji ready to go at DE or is he going to make the team better at NT? Can Poppinga be placed in a position the help the team more than hurt it?

Can the master chef take an assortment of ingredients and still make a great dish out of it?

There's enough pressure to go around on this defense in 2009, with several players wearing targets on their backs. Will Hawk blossom? Will Harris fall off? Will Barnett finally become the linebacker we thought he would develop into? Will Collins be a one-year wonder?

But the most pressure will likely fall upon our chef. Dom Capers is going to prove if he can stand the heat, or if he should get out of the kitchen.


IPB said...

Not bad, C.D. Kitchen Cook analogy is pretty fair. Although I would disagree with the fact that the 3-4 had had its day in the sun as the 1990's were coming around.

Agree or disagree (?) - it was the West Coast Offense that caused a change across the NFL to the 4-3.

Bill Walsh came up with the concept of laying out the diagram - from Cincinnati, that is - and Mike Holmgren made it work on Offense for the Niners. If anything, I would almost be willing to give Holmgren more credit for the WCO than Walsh. But, it's old news, let's move on.

Against the WCO isn't the 4-3 more "palatable"..? And, doesn't it cover for more of the contentions that show up in a WCO game plan? It seems that way from over in this chair.

Speaking of the WCO. How many teams still actually use that specific Offense? We now have the Wildcat to consider. Although, that too may be a flash in the pan.

Personally, before now, I did not see certain players becoming what they have on other teams, back when it might have been the Pack that grabbed them. So, while hindsight is 20/20 ... drafting players in the NFL certainly isn't. Nor should anyone pretend what might have been as a reasoning for calling any GM a failure.

Half the battle is making sure any Team has the right set of Coaches. A top-drawer General Manager can bring in all the first round picks he wants. And, if the Coaches simply aren't good Teachers, then those same players will not hold up.


C.D. Angeli said...

I do agree with you IPB.

In the 1970/80s, power run games and opened-up passing games were en vogue. So, defenses moved to the 4-3...front four stopped the run.

As the 4-3 established itself, the WCO formed to counter it: short passing, screens, misdirection to get around the massive front fours.

As the WCO formed, Denver started the movement towards the smaller, quicker defensive linemen in the 90's. They could pursue the misdirections better and stymied the screen.

As that happened, the ZBS came into being...a simpler run attack that required one cut from the RB once the smaller DL were off balance.

From that, came the move back to the 3-4...more hidden support from the outside edges, more ability to attack from the outside.

What next? Well, the 3-4 counters so many of the changes that have taken place, that eventually, offenses will have to go back to straight straight ahead power rushing through those three DL and start passing more out routes and zone reads with the linebackers pulled up to the line.

So eventually, the defenses will be forced to bulk up the front lines and keep the linebackers back in coverage for longer passes.

Thus, the return to the 4-3. It's all cyclical.

Aaron said...

Great stuff as usual CD. I would only note that the NFC North blog piece was actually by Matt Williamson, not Seifert.